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Airline passengers rest on the floor as they wait for flights in Heathrow airport's Terminal 3 on Monday. (BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)
Airline passengers rest on the floor as they wait for flights in Heathrow airport's Terminal 3 on Monday. (BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Carl Mortished

U.K. infrastructure creaks under weight of snow, politics Add to ...

The snow is barely high enough to cover the stubble in the fields of the Home Counties but it brought misery to hundreds of thousands of European travellers and the effective closing of Heathrow, Europe's main intercontinental hub, along with national humiliation. The third unusually cold winter in a row raises all kinds of questions - on energy supply; road, rail and air transport; and even Britain's strident all-party support for immediate action on global warming. Like most such dramas, the politics may evaporate in a post-Christmas thaw but already snow has revealed that Britain is horribly ill-prepared for a new century of harsh economic competition.

Sixty years after the Second World War, Britain is struggling with a wobbly lip, hoping that it will be all right on the night. You could hear it in the attempt on Monday by Colin Matthews, chief executive of airport operator BAA Ltd., to explain why Heathrow became a tented city of more than 5,000 refugees over the weekend after a 10-centimetre snowfall forecast many days in advance. Heathrow has 60 snow- and ice-clearing machines, but he failed to say if they were all operating or how many staff were at work. They had trouble clearing gantries and communicating with airlines. It was all a bit of a muddle. British Airways, the biggest carrier at Heathrow cancelled all its flights Saturday morning.

From the vantage point of a BMI Airbus arriving at Gatwick Sunday evening after an eight-hour delay, the problem became clear: The blitz spirit is wearing thin. We trundled across the airport apron and came to a prolonged stop. No airport workers around, said the apologetic pilot. Eventually, a marshal arrived to guide the plane on to a stand but he steered it too far off the gantry. The pilot pleaded for a staircase and after an hour was told that stairs were banned for "health and safety reasons" - earlier, an airport employee had slipped on an icy step. For two hours we waited, watching from portholes as men shrugged, scratched their heads and kicked small clumps of snow until a tow truck was found to pull the plane into position.

The lockdown at Heathrow threw the entire continental air traffic system into chaos. Instead of developing a strategy, however, airport officials and politicians in Britain ask rhetorical questions: Is it worth investing millions to handle a once in 20-year snowfall?

The answer, of course, is yes - if the British want London to remain a world capital. Despite the protestations of ministers and the Mayor of London, there is no concerted drive to build infrastructure and enterprises that might protect Britain in a fickle financial universe, where capital moves like a jet stream around the globe. Consider the airports: long privatized, they are now foreign-owned. BAA, the Heathrow operator, is controlled by Ferrovial, a debt-burdened Spanish building company. Ferrovial was forced to sell three airports to satisfy competition concerns and last year Gatwick was snapped up by Global Infrastructure Partners, a private equity firm backed by Credit Suisse and GE.

Britain's airports, its power companies and its water companies are controlled by foreign enterprises. E.ON and RWE of Germanym and Electricité de France have the lion's share of the power grid while Canadian pension funds have partially filled the vacuum in domestic transport. Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan controls the airports of Bristol and Birmingham, while Borealis and Teachers together have agreed to buy High Speed 1, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

You might wonder why the British are not keen to invest in their infrastructure when the business case for power and transport is clear. It could be a profound loss of collective will. These are strategic investments which require not only commercial but also political and national vision, and that has been dwindling for many years. When BAA was privatized, its new owners rapidly turned the airports into a highly profitable series of shopping malls. It was to be a short-term property play rather than long-term infrastructure game, and an attempt was made to do the same with the railroads until the privatized network began to collapse in confusion and terrible accidents.

Now it is all creaking badly. But few seem to recognize the long-term danger of appearing to run London's vital infrastructure in so amateur a fashion. The British don't seem to think it's worth the effort and if nice Spaniards, Germans, French and Canadians will try to do it for them, so much the better.

Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist based in London.

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